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Wheels and Spokes

By Sheila Ascroft

Penny Farthing had huge front wheel


Bicycle manufacturers haven’t exactly re-invented the wheel, but they sure have played around with it.

Back in those olden but golden days when bicycles were being developed, the Penny Farthing had an enormous front wheel paired with a baby rear wheel. The front wheel could be as big as a man’s inseam, so the taller man travelled more distance with each rotation! Sanity arrived, with the advent of the “safety” bicycle with wheels of equal size. That’s what we still have now, except the wheels may vary in size from the typical 26” mountain bike to the 700 mm road wheel (it’s almost 27” but not quite!).

Wheel rims were first made out of iron and wood, which made for a bumpy, unforgiving ride. Then, steel, aluminium, carbon fibre and a combination of metals and ceramic finishes were tried. While all rims are round (well, they should be unless you’ve really damaged one), the shape where the tire affixes can be designed according to a rider’s needs. So, rims can be round or box (this is the sturdiest) and V-shaped, depending on their purpose. V-shape is more aerodynamic; deep dish or deep V is often used in triathlons and time-trials where cutting air drag is important. Sometimes, in the race against the clock, the wheels are completely covered (called a disc wheel) so that no spokes show at all!

More recently, with the emphasis of lightness and aerodynamics, wheels are being made with a variety of spoke combinations. Radial spoke means that a set of spokes radiates straight out from the hub to the rim. Double-cross means that spokes cross over each other near the hub and provide more strength. For heavy-duty touring where durability counts the most, wheels often have triple-cross spokes. Finally, the number of spokes per wheel may vary: 16 spokes in front and 20 at the back, or 20/24 or 24/28, or the traditional 32/32.

Basically, the more spokes and cross-overs, the more durable the wheel. Durability matters because you don’t want to lose riding time getting the wheel re-trued over and over, or having a spoke break or a rim go “out of round.” However, durability comes with a weight penalty. If you are a feather-weight who always rides smooth pavement, this probably won’t affect you. But if you have a few extra pounds or ride irregular chip and seal, or pot-holed back roads, you want a durable wheel set on your bike.

Why should you care? Well, rotating weight matters. I’m no techno-guru, but the laws of gravity, tire resistance, wind resistance and rider effort equate in an unholy combination.

In short, goes as light and aero as you can with your wheels without compromising safety or reliability. If in doubt, ask your local bike shop what would be best for your style of riding.

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